Greeting: Greetings from Jesus Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega; who is and who was and who is to come; the Almighty.
Text: 8) To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9) I know you afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jesus and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to the test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Introduction: If you were asked to recall a Scripture passage from the Book of Revelation, you may well cite the words: “Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” These are precious words of Jesus, spoken by Him to encourage us to lifelong loyalty to Him.
This morning we get an opportunity to consider those words and the story that surrounds them. The words are part of Christ’s second letter to the churches in Asia Minor, the latter to Smyrna. These words are part of an appeal that calls on God’s people to be strong in their sufferings.
Symrna was a beautiful and proud city of Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century. Smyrna still exists today as the modern city of Izmir, Turkey. Smyrna was located 40 miles north and west of Ephesus. The people of Smyrna had very close ties with Rome. Many of its people eagerly followed the practice of Emperor worship. Smyrna also had a large Jewish population. The combination of a strong secular religion that regarded Roman emperors as gods and of Christ-rejecting Judaism made the city of Smyrna a difficult place to be a Christian.
The Christian congregation in Smyrna was spiritually healthy. The congregation was served for many years by Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John. The church is one of only two of the seven churches that received no rebuke from Christ. However, it was a church with a challenging mission. The congregation in Smyrna was a church chosen to undergo special persecution because of its members’ allegiance to Jesus Christ. Their experience is a reminder that Jesus wants His believing people to be willing to suffer for His sake.
At the time of the writing of Revelation, the persecution of the Christians in Smyrna had already begun. Jesus wrote: “I know your afflictions, poverty, the slander of Jews who are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” The persecution had been instigated and led by hostile Jews who were in Satan’s service. These Jews slandered the good name of Christians by making rash, false accusations against them and through trumped up charges against believers that caused their homes and possessions to be confiscated. Believers were harassed and impoverished because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet, these Christians in Smyrna held firmly to their faith. Jesus declared them to be rich, despite their earthly poverty. They had suffered significant earthly losses, but they had retained a large, spiritual treasure. Despite discouragements, they continued to trust in the One who was the First and the Last, the One who died and now lives forever, the merciful and mighty Lord Jesus.
Now, Jesus let the believers in Smyrna know that things would get even harder for them. The devil-driven persecution would not stop with the loss of their property and reputation, with the slander of their character and the seizure of their possessions. It would persist – and intensify. The increasing persecution would lead to imprisonments and death for believers. Polycarp, the bishop of Symrna, would himself be put to death in 156 A.D. at the age of 87.
Times of persecution of Christians are educational. They reveal important truths and impart vital lessons. The persecution of believers in Symrna showed the furious hatred of Satan against God and His Church. The attacks also showed the destructive anger that unbelief holds and directs against the Lord and His believers. Persecution also gives believers in Christ the opportunity to show their faithfulness and love for Christ. Persecution that comes our way tests our sincerity and helps us appreciate the great worth of our faith. Furthermore, persecution leads us to rely, not on ourselves, but on God for strength to endure. A believer, named John of the Cross, pointed to the vital educational benefits of persecution when he asked the question: “What does anyone know who does not know how to suffer for Christ?” Going through a period of persecution helps Christians learn precious lessons. Among those lessons is the truth that persecution is not a sign of God’s displeasure, but a sign of His favor on those who believe in Him.
The Lord of the Church offered help to His treasured, persecuted people. Listen to the promises He speaks. He told the believers in Smyrna: “You will suffer persecution for 10 days.” Jesus let His believers know that the sufferings they faced were controlled by God. He would limit them and not let them be more than they could handle with His help. Jesus also said: “Be faithful to the point of death and you will receive the crown of life.” The Lord encourages His believers to remain true to Him and His Word by pointing them to think of the heavenly awards ceremony where God crowns His faithful people with the crown of victory and life. Finally, Jesus promises: “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” Christ tells His Christians that those who continue in faith will not be harmed by eternal death. When they die physically, they will not die eternally, they will not go to hell.
These promises from the lips of our Lord are given to see us through pain, loss and death so we may attain joy, victory and life. These are the words of solemn assurance from the One who loved us more than His own life and who suffered far worse torments than we will ever know.
Sometimes God shields us from suffering and persecution. At other times, He allows it to come, but also and always gives us strength to bear it. No matter what challenges we face, we have nothing to fear. Should suffering come our way, we may face it, being loyal to our Lord, strengthened by His grace, and expectant for His blessings. Like the believers in Smyrna, God will help us be faithful to the point of death, confident Jesus will give us the crown of life. Amen.